Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977

Charles Elkins

An Approach to the Social Functions of American SF

My basic methodological approach is that, in contrast to a purely aesthetic approach, a sociological perspective studies SF as it relates to social order, to the forms of man's changing social relationships. By social order, I mean the structuring of social relationships through the communication of hierarchy, that is, the communication of roles which delineates people into classes, ranks, and status groups as superiors, inferiors and equals. Hierarchical communication is best thought of as persuasion expressed in dramatic forms whose "proper" enactment creates and sustains present social arrangements or changes them by "fixing" symbolic meanings. Social order is a social drama in which actors struggle to sustain, destroy, or change the principles on which the hierarchy rests. Social order, in continuity or change, results from a resolution of the dramatic conflict involved in the acceptance, doubt, or rejection of the principles that are believed to guarantee order.               

The need for order arises out of the nature of human action. Action is always problematic to some degree because we are mysteries to one another, and we are moving into a future in which old forms of social action may be useless. This need for order has one of its dimensions in the problematic circumstances of the social group and class within which the writer is located, and each writer is obligated to create the "terms for order" for his particular group, even if this entails a revolution against the social relationships his group confronts. As part of the petty bourgeoisie, the SF writer has two major social tasks. For the major audience within his class and for the large number of SF readers outside this class (e.g. those SF readers in the working class and the few readers in the ruling elite), the writer produces works whose consumption validates the bourgeois social order and the economic system which produces it. By linking the ruling symbols of bourgeois culture (money, individual autonomy, competition, individual merit, etc.) with other powerful symbols, symbols evoking awe, mystery, glamour, and elegance, the writer creates literature which legitimates existing social arrangements and inspires those excluded to adopt its world view. At the same time, the writer must articulate the nature of and find resolutions for the role-conflicts plaguing those who identify with or who would embrace his audience's ideology. It is the world view of the technologically-minded petty bourgeoisie and the professional sector of the bourgeoisie. The writer "transcends" these conflicts through symbolic appeals embodying those ultimate values upon which this social order rests. For example, while ruthless competition is built into the existing order, the mystifications of money, and the power and status it can bestow, can inspire readers to overcome or endure the unintended "obstacles" resulting from unhampered competition.However, the long term prospects for neutralizing role conflicts inherent in this social order and insuring the survival of this class are dim indeed. Observably, this group is increasingly unable to cope with a present full of contradictions and a future promising to be radically different from the nineteenth-century, industrial society out of which bourgeois man arose. This emerging future demands fundamental changes in the social order and, hence, of the roles which constitute that order.               

I make the assumption that the specific social function of literature involves mystifying existing or alternative hierarchical structures, demystifying them, and offering passage from one role to another. Although aesthetic questions are intimately involved in the question of order, the primary question for the sociologist of SF should be: how is social order communicated in SF and how does this symbolic act relate to the structure and function of social action? Who are the heroes, villains and fools of the social order, and in the name of what principles do they act? We should seek the terms, the symbolic identifications of the various contending voices and contradictions, in order to understand and evaluate what the writer is saying about the present social order. We can explore how artistic communication affects society and vice versa. We need to develop a functional perspective, i.e. how literature is used by various classes, institutions, groups, etc., to get into power, stay in power, increase their power and destroy or weaken the power of others—in short, how society uses literature to organize experience. However, we must show how this is done in the work of art itself; we must show how the function of the work relates to its form.                

To repeat my thesis: The SF writer's task is to describe the nature of and find resolutions to the role conflicts which vex his social group by creating images of the past and future which he and his readers use to organize action in the present. The writer's terms for ordering this conflict may either reinforce, question or reject the principles upon which this group's existence depends. Traditionally, the SF writer has approached his task by offering his readers radical dislocations in time and space so as to create stages for action, to allow for experimentation with roles supposedly required for his individual and his group's survival. As representatives of various principles of social order, characters act on these new stages; by comparison with present reality, this supports, questions, or rejects the principles upon which the existing order is based. The significant question is: will the roles sanctified by the past or legitimated by present "conditions" be appropriate for confronting the novelty of an emerging future?                

To answer part of that question, one might examine the kind of hero who personifies the professional, technologically-oriented bourgeois. For heuristic purposes, one can construct an ideal type. He is a young male, intelligent, sometimes brilliant, poised and courageous. His bravery combines self-control, and an acceptance of "reality." He is a super-technician, with a good deal of basic Yankee "knowhow" and a gut feeling for machines. Absorbed in his responsibilities, he views work as one of the most important aspects of experience, for himself and others. He is rational and empirical; knowledge is important but instrumental. His basic motivation is power, power sometimes gained by accumulating wealth but often by acquiring knowledge. He views ideas, physical nature and other men as instruments of that power. Accepting the reality of struggle and competition, he dominates relationships; life is a conflict with other men, with nature, and often with himself. He is often beset by contradictory impulses; he is a combination of a nineteenth-century industrial entrepreneurial, inner-directed, bourgeois Philistine and a twentieth-century, post-industrial, apolitical technocrat.                

To construct ideal types is to simplify, but by stressing one or two of any of these character traits, one could accurately identify many science fiction heroes, beginning with Verne's Barbicane and Wells' Bedford to Heinlein's and Asimov's heroes               

While the fortunes of this class were rising, SF depicted futures, alternative worlds, and roles reinforcing the principles upon which this group's existence rests. (This theme has been admirably discussed in Gérard Klein's, "Discontent in American Science Fiction," in the March, 1977 issue of SFS.) The meaning of the roles, and hence the social order whose enactment they create were seldom questioned. The problem was not why but how to play the role. The writer's "terms for order" were consistent with this group's world view. Historically, SF has told its readers that survival involves coping in such a way as to maintain the attitudes necessary for success within existing social arrangements. By naming new situations and their attendant roles in such a way as to charge objects and actions with sentiments needed to sustain the existing order, SF functioned like the pep talk or the exhortation. As the writer praises and curses, he inspires his readers with the attitudes necessary for successful role playing. Not surprisingly, then, the nineteenth-century SF hero is a rugged, pragmatic, bourgeois individualist, perhaps epitomized best as Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer-imperialist and hero of Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go.                

That most SF heroes personify this aspect of the bourgeois explains why one finds many of them "liberating" static, isolated, feudal societies and opening them up to the rest of the Galactic empire. As Marx pointed out, the overthrowing of feudal society was the historical mission of the bourgeois. The spaceship of the famous Star Trek crew, The Enterprise, is appropriately named. This kind of SF offers the reader ways to destroy beliefs detrimental to the bourgeois and to replace dysfunctional values with symbols charged with new values. Through identification with these heroes, the audience struggles to defeat those that threaten their order, those who represent other values, or those, among the writer's and readers' own group, whose excesses threaten the existing order.                

By the same token, one should realize that this verbal magic was used because writers and readers were unable to obtain what they wanted by other methods. We cannot determine the future; all we really know is that it will be different from the present or past. And while many SF writers see the future social order—despite the incredible leaps in technological innovation and changes in the means of production—as a familiar extrapolation of existing social structures, there are indications that the future will be vastly different from the present and will demand the abolition of bourgeois man, just as the ice age demanded the abolition of the dinosaur. As Victor Ferkiss, in his Technological Man (U.S., 1969), puts it:

Bourgeois man is still in the saddle. Or to put it more accurately, things are in the saddle, since bourgeois man is increasingly unable to cope with his problems. At the same time, an existential revolution is under way that may destroy the identity of the human race, make society unmanageable and render the planet literally uninhabitable. Bourgeois man is incapable of coping with this revolution. [p. 245]

Some SF writers seem increasingly aware of this. The crisis in practically every phase of social life, coupled with the rather abrupt loss of power and privilege of the professional-technocratic elite, has precipitated a crisis in confidence, in the identity and future existence of this class and in the future itself. I have pointed to Gérard Klein's article examining the pessimistic character of recent SF; I would only add that this loss of confidence reveals itself in the SF writer's attempts to do more by way of exploring the meaning of traditionally acceptable roles, the why as well as the how of role enactment.                

Once one begins to examine the relationship between means and ends in social action or the meaning of a particular role, then the whole social order comes under scrutiny. Here—especially since the 1960's—SF ceases functioning exclusively as verbal magic; instead, it explores the possibilities of action and what it means to act in a specific role. The main character—often now an anti-hero—suffers the consequences of trying to resolve serious role conflicts, or he learns to be a neutral observer, a non-partisan, a cultural anthropologist. Like the earlier heroes, he (and recently, she) is independent, apolitical or liberal, intelligent, brave, dedicated to work, a super-technician, a rationalist/phenomenologist/empiricist, but unlike his forerunners, he is less obsessed with power and domination of the economic sort and less apt to see the world in individualistically competitive terms. This new hero sees man more within nature than apart from it. Often he attempts to define man and his place in the universe in monistic, holistic terms. He is more receptive to novelty and less likely to Westernize the future universe. Indeed, from Stapledon's Star Maker, through A.E. van Vogt's Slan to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the main character teaches us the folly of ethnocentrism. At their worst, these novelists parallel the attitude of bourgeois scientists, refusing to go beyond description and concentrating on uninterpreted phenomena. Usually, this stance produces a crude naturalism, with its counterpart, sensationalism, or it chronicles one impossibility upon another, one fantastic world, one grotesque life form, or one social absurdity after another. The only possible reader response is, "Gee, whiz," or "Isn't that interesting!" From this point of view, pretty much anything goes, as long as it does not seem to harm anyone. Freedom is usually defined in the negative, i,e. freedom from something (e.g. of the individual from society). The socially acceptable role celebrated in these novels is a sort of libertarian laissez-faire, a "live and let live" mentality. It is this stance that is, as Herbert Marcuse argues in his A Critique of Pure Tolerance (U.S., 1968), "an ideology of tolerance which in reality favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination" (pp. 122-23).

Paradoxically, this bourgeois liberal view runs counter to the new heroes' movements to embrace an inclusive, integrated, holistic philosophy. In addition, this self-contradictory perspective virtually insures perpetual conflict. This social atomism renders the bourgeois increasingly unable to cope with the effects of technological change (leaving it up to piecemeal planners, the anarchy of the market place, and ad-hoc crisis management) and of the future that technology is bringing into existence. Today, many SF writers communicate their uneasiness with these contradictions by envisioning futures increasingly more ominous. If role conflicts cannot be resolved in terms which will keep the existing social order intact—and it seems clear that they cannot—then we are either given novels where solutions are left problematic—e.g. in Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar—or we are presented with the alternative between the end of man and some "inhuman" solution. As for the first, many writers have come to see the future in cataclysmic terms, not an original vision to be sure, but one that has taken on new dimensions: Man, not God, is responsible for the holocaust. However, the other alternative is just as disturbing because it takes the solutions to these conflicts out of man's hands entirely. Unable to assent to superficial solutions which depend upon the continuance of the present social order but unwilling to confirm the dire prophecies of their colleagues, more and more writers are taking refuge in quasi-mystical solutions which eliminate man. Conflicts terminate through the intervention of god-like creatures or powers, or man himself is transformed into something approaching a god-like status. Again, this is not new. One can trace a variation on this theme as far back as Wells' War of the Worlds; however, the popularity of works such as Clarke's Childhood's End and 2001 and Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land suggest a present fascination with this solution. Their disturbing features should not be overlooked; they suggest that man cannot solve the problems confronting him. It is an admission of failure by a group which feels impotent to institute the necessary changes needed to perpetuate itself.                

Even in the best of these novels, with their satire of existing social order, there are few attempts to go beyond mere criticism and to create the necessary metaphors which will allow one to move from passive criticism of the status quo to active roles necessary for transforming the social order and producing genuine social change. The major omissions, the silences of the text, are roles which allow for collective action in social change. And without this collective action, arrived at through democratic means, the individual is almost always defeated (unless, of course, he is a superman or has some super technology at his disposal). In addition, his downfall serves to reinforce the notion of an eternal, invincible bourgeois order.               

At the same time, if our initial analysis is correct, it is clear that the presently constituted social order is increasingly unable to resolve the conflicts it engenders. While collective action is crucial for changing existing institutions, it is also evident that technological change has its own imperatives and strains existing social relations. For example, the continual radical changes in the means of production require continual role adjustments. However, most SF fails to relate roles to changes in technology and its socio-economic and political consequences, and to the irreversibility of man's creation of new knowledge.               

This failure to relate role changes to changes in technology violates aesthetic as well as logical criteria. As critics are forever saying, each part of a work of art must be consistent with the whole. If one changes the scene, the space-time matrix, and creates a genuine alternate world, then one cannot be artistically successful by leaving the characters and their relationships unchanged. One's sense of organic unity requires that societies with radically different technologies have radically different social orders with fundamentally different roles. One can argue that man's basic drives will remain unchanged, that we will still have to eat, procreate and express our aggression and creativity; but even if we agree with this assumption, it still remains that those basic drives must be expressed in some specific forms, in specific roles determined by the social order within which we are located. Our eating habits, our ways of expressing sexual drives, our modes of aggression and our styles of creation are not immutable. Further, an ability to create a social order consistent with the technological imperatives is central to the SF writer's imaginative vision. A failure here parallels a failure in political imagination; indeed, the two are inseparable. That is the meaning of harmony.

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